As the Virginia baseball team prepares to host the NCAA tournament for the first time after receiving one of 16 No. 1 seeds, it is perhaps easy to forget the Cavaliers haven't been playing like a top seed lately.
Since opening the season 34-7, the Cavs are 8-6 in the past six weeks. Last week at the ACC tournament they were ousted quickly with two one-run losses.
"I know the players were very, very disappointed in the outcome of the ACC tournament," Virginia Coach Brian O'Connor said. "I mean, how could you not be? . . . We've played better than that."
The Cavaliers (42-13) will have ample opportunity to prove themselves in regional play this weekend, starting Friday night against Ivy League champion Princeton (27-18), seeded fourth of the four teams here. Friday's afternoon opener features No. 2 seed Vanderbilt (42-17) and No. 3 seed George Mason (39-17).
"It's going to be a tough regional," Virginia shortstop Mark Reynolds said, "but if we play like we can, I think we'll be all right."
Virginia will begin the weekend with junior left-hander Andrew Dobies, whose average performance in recent weeks has mirrored and contributed to the team's uneven play as a whole. Dobies (6-2) was perhaps the best pitcher in the ACC through two-thirds of the season, but he has allowed at least four earned runs in each of his past five starts, going 0-2 with a 6.73 ERA.
"He hasn't been quite on top of his game the last couple outings," catcher Scott Headd said. "I think he's probably pressing a little bit. . . . But just over this last week he's really progressed, and I think he's ready to go."
Dobies solved his biggest problem, Headd said, by changing the grip on his cut fastball, putting the bite back in "that one finish pitch that he's been lacking lately to put the batters away when he gets to two strikes."
Dobies said he hasn't been displeased with how he's been throwing lately: "Everyone hits a bottom at times. I feel like I'm capable of bouncing back."
His teammates, meantime, will deal with Tigers ace Ross Ohlendorf (6-3), a junior right-hander who, like Dobies, is expected to forgo his final college season and enter the professional ranks this summer. In 157 career innings, Ohlendorf has a 3.44 ERA.
Mark Reynolds, like Dobies a member of the all-ACC second team, could be a key to Virginia's offense, but he also hasn't done much in recent weeks. After hitting .321 with seven home runs in the first 33 games of the season, the junior infielder is at .226 with three homers in 22 games since hurting his wrist at William & Mary.
"Just in the past week or so, [the wrist] starting to feel better, 100 percent," Reynolds said Monday. "I've been hitting the ball pretty good in practice. I've definitely been struggling -- if you look at my numbers, you can tell -- but at tournament time, I think I'll turn it up."
O'Connor acknowledged these star players -- the players who led Virginia to just its fourth NCAA tournament bid -- will need to be at top form.
"We have worked so hard, but every team in this regional has," O'Connor said. "They wouldn't be to this point if they hadn't. But how you've got to view it as a player is . . . when you have the opportunity, you have to take it from somebody else, and not sit around and wait for somebody else on your team to do it. You've got to go out and take it from the other team."
Cavaliers Notes: Virginia expects to have senior right fielder Matt Street in the lineup this weekend, though perhaps not in his usual leadoff spot. Street batted 1 for 8 and made a handful of nice defensive plays in the ACC tournament after missing the last four games of the regular season because of a broken right hand.